More and more Alaskans need help with food as prices spike at the gas pump and on grocery shelves, while pandemic relief dollars dry up, local providers say.
“Most of our partners are saying they’re seeing the need really ramp up in the last one to two months,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska, which distributes food to some 150 agencies statewide.
Agencies are now seeing demand approach what it reached in the early months of the pandemic, when providers saw a roughly 75% increase — which at the time reflected record-breaking levels of need, Durr said.
The Food Bank of Alaska operates a series of mobile food pantries, and the number of households served at each has been trending upward lately, Durr said.
While the food bank doesn’t yet have numbers for May 2022, the number of households served at the pantries went from 1,926 in February to 3,738 in April. In April 2020, they served around 3,400 households, before reaching a high for that year in October with over 4,700 households served.
“It’s easy to feel like, ‘Well, things are back to normal, and there’s tons of jobs available,’ ” Durr said. “But for people that lost wages, and maybe were struggling already, it takes a while to dig out of that hole.”
Irene Brooks is a community worker at the Copper River Native Association Food Bank, the only food bank in the greater Copper River Basin, serving clients from Eureka to McCarthy. Brooks said the number of clients right now is the highest it has ever been.
People are telling her that while they’ve never used food banks in the past, prices are so high they can’t afford to feed their families.
“I’ve literally had people tell me that if it wasn’t for food banks, they and their families would have gotten hungry,” she said.
Groceries up 10% as rental assistance ends
Several factors may be contributing to this increase in demand for help with food right now.
Over the past year, the price of groceries rose 10.8% while the prices for meat poultry, fish, and eggs increased 14.3% — the biggest yearlong increase since 1979, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Inflation is significant right now, said Neal Fried, an economist with the state. But Fried said that may not be the primary reason people’s incomes are strained. Pandemic relief money, including rental assistance, is running out right now too, and that could be an even more significant contributor to that strain, Fried said.
“The transfer payments that come from government, of all varieties, have been dropping off significantly and have probably a disproportionate impact on lower-income households,” Fried said.
People receiving food tell those working at Lutheran Social Services that their dollars just aren’t going far enough at the store right now, said Alan Budahl, executive director there.
Plus, many have high utility costs and are facing shutoffs. He said he receives some 20 to 30 calls a day for rental assistance.
“I tell them, ‘Well, use your money to keep your utilities on and pay the rent, and it’s easier for us to feed you,’ ” he said.
Durr with the Food Bank of Alaska said the level of need at food pantries makes sense, given prices people are paying for things like fuel right now. Food is a relatively easy resource to get help with, as opposed to something like getting rental assistance, which is more challenging, she said.
Often when people’s budgets are strapped, food is something they can get ahold of, and the last thing they give up when getting back on their feet.
“They could come to a food pantry and get a week’s worth of food,” Durr said. “That’s a big help in the budget.”
‘The exact same numbers as fall 2020′
Last fall, demand slowed, said Greg Meyer, director at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in Soldotna. But recently, it increased, he said.
The food bank serves several remote areas where need is especially high right now. And not only are food prices high, the cost of fuel has risen, too, which makes coming to pick up the food challenging as well, he said.
At the same time need is rising, Meyer said the organization doesn’t have the same ability to serve as it did earlier in the pandemic, after certain CARES Act programs lapsed. They have less food and variety than they did previously.
“Our numbers have gone up,” Meyer said. “But some of our programs that were in response to the pandemic have gone away, so our ability to provide as much has gone down.”
On a recent Tuesday, cars lined up to receive food from St. Francis House Food Pantry in East Anchorage. Robin Smith, a volunteer who was helping pack boxes of food to be given out, said they used to put together four pallets’ worth of boxes. Lately, she said, that number climbed to six and sometimes almost seven pallets.
“If you asked us three months ago, it would not look like this,” said Claire Lubke, who directs the food pantry, as she walked along the line of cars toward staff giving out boxes.
In the first week of May, they served 400 households. By mid-May, they served 430. By the third week of the month, that number had risen to 480 households. They used to see some 70 households come through each day the pantry was open. Now it’s up to 120.
Lubke said that demand at their food pantry was most intense during the fall of 2020 after people were out of work, COVID-19 relief money hadn’t kicked in, and people had used up their reserves. That’s when the numbers peaked.
“We are now up to the exact same numbers as fall 2020,” she said.